One of the first bids I ever made on eBay was for a group of Edison records. When Thomas Edison said “record”, he didn’t mean “flat black discs”, but rather “short, squat cylinders”. Five of them set me back ten dollars including shipping. I remember opening up the box and pulling out five small cardboard tubes, each with a picture of Thomas Edison on the front. I wondered if that was how the expression “canned music” originated. I didn’t have a way to play the cylinders, but I had just bought a turntable that could play my antique 78 RPM records. How hard could it be to find a modern day cylinder player? Actually, new machines were available. They cost about as much as my car.
My roommate from college was an electrical engineer. I gave him the challenge to help me build a cylinder player from scratch. He designed a set of circuits to connect the player to an amplifier, just like any other piece of audio equipment. He also came up with a novel method to control the speed of the motor using a disk with holes punched in it. A light was set on one side, a sensor on the other. A small computer kept track of how many times the light blinked and adjusted the speed accordingly. However, when it came to the practical aspects of the project – machining the mandrel to set the cylinder on, for instance – he wasn’t much help.
The 34th Annual Phonograph and Music Box Show was held over the weekend. It runs every June and I’ve meant to go for the last several years, but I usually remember it around August. I drove out to Union early Sunday morning. The equipment was spread out in a large meeting room and a neighboring roofed over patio. Everyone looked a little fatigued. I’ve seen that look at garage sales on the last afternoon. Still, everyone I met was more than happy to talk shop and explain the basics of antique phonographs to a novice.
By the end of the day, I found out my cylinders were the two-minute variety. They were probably recorded around 1905. I had to worry about mold; one gentleman showed me a cylinder covered in what looked like specks of white paint. I liked the Amberola players that were integrated into a wooden cabinet. However, I was told these were only for the later four-minute cylinders. I would need to get a standard model phonograph that looked like a big wooden lunchbox. Who knew Apple and Microsoft didn’t invent incompatibility? I headed towards the door around 3:00 with a bag of records and a sheaf of notes. One of the guys who had answered a bunch of my questions while balancing his lunch on his lap waved me over to his booth.
“So, do you have everything you need?” he asked.
I laughed, “Everything but the money!”